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Toward the end of a three-day trek through the Simien Mountains, we stopped for a break in a village on the way out of Simien National Park. The hosts offered us a homemade beer, which they served out of metal vegetable cans and which tasted like a mix of mostly dirt and water. That didn't stop anyone, especially our guards, from sampling the concoction, perhaps a little too much.
We were trekking in the Simien Mountains and came across a large group of Gelada Baboon. It was a great experience walking quietly through them.
Coffee was discovered in Ethiopia in the 9th century and cultivated by the Arabs in the 15th century. It's your historical imperitave to continue to enjoy this amazing discovery at the oldest coffee shop in Ethiopia. Ethiopians will say the only good thing the Italians brought to the country was the coffee machinery and the resulting macchiato. Order yours at the front of Tomoca Coffee shop and then pick it up at the back, in front of two whirring espresso machines. The coffee is hot, strong, and deliciously bitter. Pick up a half a kilogram as a souvenier on your way out to continue the legacy of Ethiopian coffee.
Any visitor to Ethiopia, or any Ethiopian restaurant, is familiar with the ubiquitous injera. Made from the indigenous tej wheat, this crepe is the plate, fork, and bread at most Ethiopian meals. At the Lalibela Cookery School in the ancient capital of Lalibela, Ethiopia, you will learn, on a wood-fired stove, how to make injera and some of the complimentary lentil and chickpea curries and sautéed vegetables served with it. Of course, after the cooking demonstration you will get to taste your creations and finish the meal with Ethiopian coffee.
It’s mid April, which is the hot, dry summer in Ethiopia, but up here at 11,500 feet the mornings are cool in the thin air. My accommodation for the night has been a stone tukul – the local style of round stone house with a thatched roof. Five of them are clustered on this outcrop overlooking the town of Lalibela about 3500 feet below. The camp is the work of TESFA (Tourism in Ethiopia for Sustainable Future Alternatives) a not-for-profit organization that promotes sustainable community tourism at several sites in northern Ethiopia. Their treks are an incredible experience and a great way to interact with the people of Ethiopia.
The Mursi tribe live in the remote part of southwest Ethiopia. These people are part of what national geographic calls the "last frontier' and had no notion of the outside world until the seventies. They have extensive cultural features . The women show their beauty and status by piercing their lips and ears and wearing large plates in them. The men demonstrate their strength and courage in stick fighting ceremonies. Even though the look so different from us they showed us similarities to our culture _ love of family and love of traditions . They were as curious of us as we were of them and yet warm and receptive.
This was my 2nd time in the Omo River Valley visiting the Surma, the Suri and the Nyangatom. These people are known for their amazing body decorations. They shave their heads into intricate designs, they pierce their lips and their earlobes, they paint their bodies, they create designs in their flesh with scarification. They are magnificent and it was worth the time and travel to this remote destination to spend time with these beautiful tribes. I traveled with Epicphototours and Soratours and would highly recommend them for this part of the world.
Outside the vibrant walled city of Harar, Ethiopia, I spotted an Afar tribesman so striking that I couldn't keep my eyes off of him. He met my gaze with an unwavering stare so intense that I quickly lost my nerve and scuttled past him, eyes averted. Kicking myself for being so shy, I turned tail and ran, dodging the mad crush of traffic, donkey carts, fruit vendors, and toothbrush salesmen to find him. His Day-Glo beard and headscarf made him easy to spot, but without a common language, all I could do was offer my hand, grin, and point to my camera. His severe expression remained unchanged until I showed him his photograph - at which point he laughed, pointed and took mine.
Commerce spills out of alleys and backstreets onto virtually every public space in and around Harar's medieval walled city (also known as Jugol). At the far end of the Christian Market, which is loosely centered around Showa Gate, there is a line of women doing a blistering trade in qat leaves. Qat chewing is a longstanding tradition in the Horn of Africa. The leaves, when chewed, produce a mild stimulant effect. A friendly guy on a bus demonstrated for us that if you want to give qat a try, fold the leaf in half and pull the stem off. To get to Harar, you can take a long bus ride (check with Selam Bus) or fly into Dire Dawa and then take a one-hour minibus ride, which costs between birr 40 and 60 ($2 - 3.50 US, depending on exchange rates and the whims of your bus driver).
Drinking coffee in Ethiopia is not a very Starbucksian experience. You won't necessarily ever have to utter a phrase like "Venti, half-caf, non-fat, no foam, extra hot latte." At least not if you go to a traditional place. The beans are roasted right in front of you, then crushed, and (finally) brewed, the entire experience taking about 20 or 30 minutes. Coffee is often served with popcorn. In other parts of the country, different snacks, like barley, appear with a cup of java.
In the northern Ethiopian city of Lalibela, extraordinary stone-craved churches dating back to the 12th century are chiseled four stories down into the earth. Certain members of the priesthood live within the boundaries of these churches, sleeping and studying in tiny caves carved into rock.
Harar, Ethiopia, is a magical place for those who like aimless wandering and getting a bit lost. We strolled through Jugol, the medieval walled city at the heart of Harar, for a few days, straying down alleys and up winding lanes, but one of the places we purposely came back to again and again was the spice market near Showa Gate. It seems almost too clichéd to say that the air was redolent with spices, but it honestly was - particularly Ethiopia's ubiquitous berbere powder. A tip for those considering a visit to Harar: If you want to hire a guide to show you around, it's not a bad idea - they can help give you some context and help you get your bearings. But you should absolutely spend a day exploring on your own - it puts a different spin on interactions with people and lets you move at your own pace.
Beginning of May 2010, Dominique Soguel, Veronica Ferreri & I took off on an extreme adventure to the Afar region - Danakil Depression of Ethiopia, bordering Eritrea. First stop, Dallol, a beautifully surreal expanse of bubbling sulfur, salt and moonscapes, yet one of the most inhospitable places on the planet due to soaring temperatures that can reach up to 145 degrees Fahrenheit. Luckily for us, it was only a mild 110 degrees! We were the only tourists there due to the intense heat. As a journalist reporting on gender issues, Dominique, met with local women in the Afar village of Kursawa we stayed in, to discuss the ongoing practice of female genital mutilation. In Hamed Ela, the school there comprises of wooden sticks & woven mats precariously assembled to form a hut & has no supplies such as papers, pencils, books or desks for the 102 students. Memorization is their primary way of learning. The village has no electricity or sewage/latrine system. We traveled with Pangean Safaris, run by a husband-and-wife team, Christos & Liza Andreou. They expressed interest in starting a grass-roots campaign to help distribute school supplies to this tiny remote village in the Danakil. Back home, we raised funds for a year's worth of school supplies (notebooks, pencils, erasers, sharpeners) for 102 students along with 20 boxes of nutritional biscuits, hydration solutions & water cleaning tablets. Thanks to Pangean Safaris for partnering with us on the surprise distribution!
Tulu Gudo Island is the largest island in Lake Ziway and is a must-see for anyone interested in Ethiopia's history or culture. Once home to the Ark of the Covenant, Tulu Gudo's Maryam Tsion Monastery still houses a fascinating collection of ancient relics dating back almost 1,100 years, including the beautiful Gedle-Kidusen manuscript, a parchment book written in Ge’ez, the ancient language of Ethiopia. Visitors to Tulu Gudo also have the chance to immerse themselves in the unique culture of the Zay people. Though just 900 of them live on the island, their culture and language are completely different from the surrounding Oromo people. Visitors pass through the village and meet the community, experience the local way of life, and discover their traditional weaving.
Travel is about living with and experiencing life through the local’s eyes. A favorite moment for this was when I found myself dancing with the locals in a bar set high on a mountainside to Ethiopian music in the hills of the northern Ethiopian town of Lalibela. Home to the rock cathedrals. It’s a historic, beautiful and vibrant town and comes alive to the beat of traditional music at night.
Thankful for an experienced guide, we walked our way through the maze of tunnels and passageways that belong to Lalibela's rock-hewn churches. The amazing architecture and beauty of our surroundings made for exquisite photography opportunities. I had planned to have the subject turn around to pose for the photo, however, I was fortunate to snap the picture before he could turn, making for a much better result. I love the effects of the natural light casting an almost 'heavenly' glow on the photograph.
Tucked inside the walled city of Harar, Ethiopia is a wonderful market loaded with local Berber spices, fresh coffee beans, herbs, and incense. The smells and sights are terrific, but the friendliness of the people sets this shopping area apart from others I've visited. Everyone seems to be happy to stop and talk about their products, your travels, etc. If you have time to chat with vendors but you don't speak their language, find a tour guide to act as an interpreter. For the best experience, stay at a Harar B&B for a few days. The houses inside the wall are intimate and affordable. You'll wake up every morning to the sound of the muezzins and the smell of newly brewed coffee! For the nicest place to lay your head, I like Rewda Guest House. You can find Rewda's current number via online travel websites that list motels, etc. When you arrive, be open to staying at her sister’s place (Zubeyda Waber Harar Cultural Guesthouse) if your room is no longer available. Reservations in Ethiopia tend to be suggestions, not promises...so be flexible and gracious and the locals will help you out. Cost of a single room: about $20 per night. Make the market tour a part of each day. On Thursdays the place expands beyond the city's gate where you can buy everything from fresh breads to fruit and handmade baskets.
Gondar's Royal Enclosure houses an incongruous collection of medieval castles started by Emperor Fasilades in the early 17th century. The Italians hid out here when they briefly occupied Ethiopia in the late 1930s and early '40s and damage from British bombing is visible. Gondar also figured prominently in the Ethiopian Civil War. Travel around the Northern Ethiopian Historical Circuit can be done in weeks by bus or in days with inexpensive and efficient flights with Ethiopian Airlines.
If you're in Ethiopia and markets are your thing, get yourself to Bahir Dar's with a quickness. On Saturday in particular, the place is a riot of energy and has a richness of goods on offer unlike anything else we saw in the country. After we made an initial pass through the market, a young man named Habtamu took us under his wing and took us a little deeper inside. With his guidance, we saw and experienced far more than we would have on our own, and this silver jewelry is the perfect case in point. Down an alley of stalls crafting new goods out of used tires, around which hovered a cloud of black dust, Habtamu led us to two silversmiths, who store their beautiful wares in knotted lengths of cotton fabric. To get to the market, walk down the main road stemming off the traffic roundabout in the heart of town for about four blocks or so (not that the blocks are of consistent size). It'll be on your right - just dive right in.
Lake Tana in Northern Ethiopia is a lovely place to spend a few days. In addition to being the source of the Blue Nile, it's home to a stunning array of holy places. If you make your way to the friendly town of Bahir Dar, you can hire a boat to take you to one of the little islands within the lake that host ancient but active monasteries. I happened upon this amazing oasis on Easter Sunday. The religious festivities began at dusk on the evening before Easter with drumming and singing filling the air until dawn. When I boarded a little motorboat to the islands at 7am, the revelry was over, but images of the previous night's festivities were everywhere. Some islands are not accessible to women, but just ask the boatmen - who can be arranged through hotel desk clerks in Bahir Dar - which destination is best and they will take you to a magical place where time seems to stand still.
On our way to Tanzania we had a 12 hour layover in Addis Ababa. Ethiopian Airlines provided a shuttle, room for the day, meals, and day visas (at no charge) to me and the group of students I was taking to Tanzania. After driving through a city and seeing 6 story buildings under construction using hand lashed wooden poles for scaffolding, people on cells phones walking with goats down the street, and hunched over women carrying 12 foot long bundles of sticks for fuel on their backs with satelitte dishes in the background, we reached the Beshale Hotel. From our window we could see a large mosque, traffic heavy roads, dirt paths, people, animals, and this large ferris wheel. The incongruity of modern and primitive, with this piece of colorful frivolity smack in the middle of it all, stuck out like a sore thumb in a place where it seemed nothing would surprise us anymore.
I've loved Ethiopian cuisine since the first time I tried it. Until I visited Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, I'd never heard of kitfo. This delicacy, which can probably be found at some Ethiopian restaurants in the United States if you look hard enough, is raw meat, eaten, of course, with injera, the spongy bread Ethiopians use to scoop up their food. The next day when I met up with an Ethiopian friend, I told him about my raw meat adventure. "You didn't eat it completely raw, did you?" I nodded affirmatively. "And you're okay today?" he asked. I nodded affirmatively again. It was delicious and I'd eat it again--yes, raw--on my next visit back to Addis Ababa.
I stopped here to buy oranges in the Addis Ababa suburb of Lafto. The storekeeper took great pride in his produce array, and the artfulness of it, and charged me to take a photo in front of it, but I didn't mind. The colors were superb. The oranges were not.
I visited Lake Hora, a resort that locals vacation, camp and honeymoon. The lake was near a wildlife refuge and the views of the hillsides around the lake (a volcanic crater) were amazing, with tropical birds, and parrots flying among the trees.
That's Geoff Watts, chief coffee buyer for Intelligentsia Coffee, and one of the world's leading experts on all things coffee. I spent a week and a half traversing the coffee landscape in Ethiopia with Watts. Here, pictured, Geoff is at a washing station (where farmers bring their cherry in to be de-pulped into coffee beans) giving a talk to coffee farmers about what type of coffee he's looking to buy.
Ethiopian wine? An unlikely pairing of words, for sure, and an unlikely beverage that you may regret having ordered while traveling around this fascinating country. I was at Castelli's, a famous Italian restaurant in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. The restaurant is a relic from Italy's failed attempt to colonize the African country. The food may be forgettable at Castelli's, but this wine is even more so. Some day, perhaps, "Ethiopia" and "wine" may have a more congruent appeal. Just not any time soon.
There are 11 churches total at the UNESCO Heritage site of Lalibela. Built in the 12th century by King Lalibela, these churches were and are a sacred pilgrimage site for Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia. Because these churches are still houses of worship and sites for ceremonies, one tours the complex with a guide and an assistant, who holds on to shoes during visits inside the church. The most famous and well-preserved church is the Church of St. George. When walking towards this church, one sees only the cross-shaped roof interrupting a flat cliffside. Closer to it, it becomes evident that the free-standing, symmetrical church was shaped and dug out of the red rock. It's at that moment, one feels this site has justly deserved its "Eighth Wonder of the World" designation.
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